Living My Life

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| This is the 156th story of Our Life Logs |


For years after I came out, I identified as a lesbian, but over time I came to realize that I was bisexual. The time I spent with men wasn’t just because I was trying to hide who I was, but because I am attracted to people, all people. This is the story of how I came out and grew to understand myself.

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I was born in 1966 in Trinidad, a Caribbean island. My mom is Trinidadian, and dad is Venezuelan. My parents separated when I was pretty young, so I spent time in both countries.

When I was in secondary school at age 13, I liked to stir up trouble. One day, I took it farther than ever before. It was the last week of school, and my math teacher, Ms. Phillips, decided to check by the lockers to see who was ditching class. And what did she find in the locker area? Me kissing a girl. Ms. Phillips stood there for a good five minutes, staring at us dumbfounded. I told Alison, the girl I was kissing at the time, “Let’s do it some more, let’s give her a real show.” When she finally had enough, Ms. Phillips came over and tapped me. “I’m going to call your mother right now because this,” she said gesturing toward us, “is new.”

She called my mother. The school had never seen two girls kissing and didn’t know how to approach it. When I came into the principal’s office, my mom was already there, ready to scold me. She said, “Michelle, the teacher just told me that you were caught in the locker area. Michelle, did I hear it right? You were kissing a girl?” I was very rebellious at that age, so I said to her, “I kissed her, and I liked it, and I’m going to kiss her again.”

What did my mother say to that? She shouted, “Oh Lord, I got to take you to the priest now. Because somebody threw obeah at my house and you caught it.” In Trinidad, “obeah” was the word for voodoo. They say, someone “threw obeah” and the person it affects “caught it.” My mother was convinced that someone had thrown obeah, and I had caught it.

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From there on, every Friday until I was 16, I had to be taken to a man who claimed to be an exorcist. He would mix a drink of castor oil with Angostura Bitters, an alcoholic flavoring made with herbs and spices. I would drink this awful thing, and then he would stick his hand down my throat, shouting, “I got to get the demons out! I got to get the demons out! This child is possessed.” Obviously, between the drink and some wacko’s hand down my throat, I would begin to throw up. He would wave and say, “The demon’s coming out. Everyone, move. The demon’s coming out.” The whole experience was traumatizing.

During this period, I began to hang out with one of the local gangs, so I could be away from home where I wasn’t accepted. I would date members of the gang, an act that was meant to say to my parents, “Fine, you want me to date boys? I’ll date the worst boys I can find.” I continued to get caught kissing girls on occasion.

My brain was exploding. In addition to all of this, I was processing the trauma I’d tried to forget about being sexually abused by my godfather’s son from the ages of 7 to 11. This led to me attempting suicide twice, once at 14 and again at 16. The second attempt left me in a coma for a week. When I woke up, a priest was standing over me, berating me and telling me I was going to Hell for trying to end my own life. This all happened before I could catch my breath. It was dreadful. At a time when I needed love and support, I was yelled at.

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Not long after I left the hospital, my aunt came from New Jersey for our annual carnival. We all had a great visit. As my aunt was getting ready to leave, my mother said to her, “I need to let you know something. When you leave, you are taking this one with you,” pointing at me. “The things she is carrying on with…I just can’t handle it.”

My aunt agreed to take me with her, away from the life I created in Trinidad. My new life in America was far from how I had imagined it. We moved into a small, cramped place five months after I arrived. I missed my parents and meanwhile felt abandoned, like they didn’t want me. Eventually, I had had enough living with my aunt and began living on the streets of the lower east side of Manhattan. By 19, I was working as a dancer in a club in New Jersey when I met the father of my son. Our relationship ended not long after my son was born.

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In 1990, when I was about 24, I gave birth to my daughter. Her father was one of my friends with benefits. We never took our relationship past the physical stage. After my daughter was born, I started dating a guy I had known from when I was much younger. He was crack user and abusive, but he gave my kids and me a place to stay. I thought I could handle the abuse, but one night, he took it too far. I wrapped my daughter in a blanket and ran as fast as I could.

We spent the night riding the subway. As we rode, I noticed an ad for Community Family Planning Council with a number at the bottom. By morning, I went above ground to call the number from the ad using a pay phone. To my surprise, I got a person and not a machine. I began pouring myself out to her, explaining everything that was happening. When I told the person where I was calling from she gasped because I was literally only five blocks from their building.

Calling them that day changed my life.

In May of 1991, thanks to Community Family Planning Council’s testing services, my baby and I were diagnosed HIV positive and we began to be treated. I eventually located my daughter’s father and told him about the diagnosis. I asked him to get tested, too, and he just looked at me and said, “Ain’t life a bitch? You know how long I’ve been living with this?” I was so angry that he had known his status and never told me. But yes, life did sound like a bitch.

As I worked with Community Family Planning Council and learned more about myself, I felt free enough to begin dating women. I started dating a sweet girl named Peggy, and we quickly grew very serious. About a year and half after my HIV diagnosis, I went to a family reunion at my aunt’s house in a town outside of Trenton, New Jersey. My aunt said to me, “Bring your boyfriend.” So, I brought my “boyfriend,” Peggy. When I walked in with her, my mom pulled me aside and said, “You had to do it. You just had to do it. You’re going to kill your father. Your father has dealt with this all these years. Now we have to deal with you being HIV positive. But, Michelle, my God, why would you bring this woman here?” I began to feel low again, like those moments as a teenager.

But then my father looked at my mom and said, “Enough of this. She’s a grown woman.” The low feeling left at my father defending me. My mom said, “You know it’s a family reunion. Why is this woman here?”

Filled with pride, I said, “She’s here because this is who I love and it’s not about kissing anymore, Mami, this is my life.”

My dad, that cute little Venezuelan man, looked at me and said, “Are you happy?” And I looked at him and said, “Papi, I am happy.” And he said, “That’s all Papi wants for you.” Hearing that gave me the strength to continue living my life, proudly.

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In later years, I became very active in the LGBTQ community and social work. It’s been 28 years. Now I’m a grandmother, and I celebrate life with my growing family.

I love sharing my story, my experience, so others can see that you can be LGBTQ, you can live with AIDS, and you can do anything. I think it takes a village to impact our survival and I want to do my part as a member of that village. Learn yourself, learn who you are. You can’t let the world tell you who you are; you have to do it yourself.  My dad really was the one that gave me that acceptance. Me being an adult at that age, that gave me the power to say, “I’m going to live my life.”

That was it, that was my coming out.

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This is the story of Michelle Lopez

Michelle, born in Trinidad in the late 1960s, currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. Punished by her mother for acting out on her bisexual impulses, Michelle eventually came to live in the United States. As she still struggled to come to terms with her sexuality, she had two children and learned both she and the youngest child were infected with HIV. When she finally came out she became a strong advocate for LGBTQ rights and acceptance. Today, Michelle is also a proud member of Caribbean American Pride, the first group to march in the Caribbean Labor Day Parade starting in 2017. Michelle enjoys reading and Broadway shows. Her favorite book is Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone, and her favorite show is Angels in America. She is also something of a fashionista and loves shopping, especially thrift stores.

Michelle leaning on fence
Michelle, 2017.

 

 

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This story was first captured by the VideoOut team on July 8, 2017 and completed by Our Life Logs on September 20, 2018.

    | Writer: Adam Savage | Editors: MJ; Kristen Petronio |

You can listen to Michelle’s retelling at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=wnl-p5wHMxs

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